In September 2009, The Arbuturian ran a story on an art curator, his start-up company and the inaugural UK exhibition of the Australian artists he represents. In eight months, he’s doubled his quota of artists (and more keep appealing to him for representation), one of them has won Australia’s most prestigious art prize (and a second was a finalist), they’ve been accepted for the Art London art fair in October this year and he’s now already back in London with his second group show which opens at the Menier Gallery this week. His name is Jonathan White. The company is COMODAA.
To recap, COMODAA (or, to give it its full name, Contemporary Modern Australian Art, but more of a mouthful) was set up by Jonathan early in 2009 to bring Australian artists to foreign shores, particularly the UK. That first exhibition, Australia Now, premiered works by nine talents (some new, some already established at home) and was the catalyst for one of them, Sam Leach, to later win Australia’s most prestigious honour, the Archibald Prize for Portraiture. I say the catalyst since Leach won with an 18” full-height rendition of comedian and songwriter, Tim Minchin, whom he met in London when promoting Australia Now. Serendipitous, indeed. What’s more, Leach went on to scoop the Wynne Prize for landscapes at the same time, an unprecedented double only previously twice achieved in the prizes’ 86-year history.
It is on the coattails of such publicity that 5 By 5, COMODAA’s second group show opens in London on May 27th and The Arbuturian has been granted a sneak peak.
I meet Jonny outside the Menier two days before the opening, during the ‘hanging’ stages. It’s locked. And there’s nobody inside. But I have a number. “Oh, you’re here already? Sorry, I’m just getting a coffee, can I get you one?” One small, white Americano later and we’re padding across the worn wooden floorboards of the gallery. It’s a great space. Part of a former chocolate factory, the gallery sits on the ground floor of an impressive Victorian building, also home to a theatre and a café. It’s a classic art venue, a substantial single room with dividing partitions and exposed brick walls completing the aesthetics. Some works are hung, others yet to be, propped against the walls in their allotted spaces.
“Australia Now was a good starting point,” says White, “we had a great turn-out and then Sam’s prize win coming so soon after…” I sense a ‘but’, “…but the trouble is now how to keep up that momentum. I think that’s why we’ve come back so soon with the second show.”
The second show brings five further artists, each with five works – hence 5 By 5 (clever that) – to London and, true to form, White has kept his finger on the pulse of what’s fuelling Australia’s contemporary art circuit. As he takes me through each of the artists’ works in turn – in the gallery each is being allotted a section – I’m struck by the diversity on offer.
Helen Pynor’s works are, for want of a better word, extraordinary. I want to say they’re simply photographs but they’re not, they’re more like botanical specimens captured in frames and given a once-over in some effects software package. “Helen’s style is quite unique,” White explains, “she immerses plants in tanks of water then adds drops of milk and food dye. That’s how you get those wonderful cloudy effects surrounding the plants. She then takes a sequence of photographs before the effect is lost – it’s not Photoshop!” To give them a high quality finish they’re then mounted on glass. They’re stunning – believe me, the image on this page does not do the work justice. I ask how he came by Helen’s work. “She came to the Australia Now show,” says White, “admittedly, those unsolicited calls you have to take with a pinch of salt but when I saw the work, I was blown away. She’s going to be very collectable.”
Already collectable is Dennis Nona. The only indigenous artist in this show, Nona hails from the Torres Straits, to the north of Australia, and his work is considered important enough to his native home to have had pieces bought by the British Museum. A printer and sculptor by trade, Nona’s etchings are striking by their size and the detail within. “Traditionally, etchings are cut into regular shapes, naturally framed pieces. Think Hogarth,” White tells me, “Dennis, however, cuts the shape of the copper he then etches. And then he goes in with the detail, that’s where the skill lies in his work. He then works his magic with the inks to get the varied colours you get making each print of the edition unique.”
If you’re wondering where the ‘traditional’ works are, there are more conventional artists represented, too. “The two painters we have in 5 By 5 are Anthony White and Tony Lloyd,” says White. The traditions of oil-painting are stretched somewhat in Anthony White’s case – his abstracts are more sculptures in oil. “He layers and layers paint on, his works are all about texture and they have these lovely earthy colours.” One thing I’m noticing about White (Jonathan, I mean) is the passion he has for his subject. Evidently, it makes him a good salesman since he tells me that he recently sold one of his namesake (no relation) Anthony’s works to an A-list Hollywood director, “But I can’t say who it is. Well, I can. But you can’t print it.”
The other painter, Tony Lloyd, brings the largest canvas to the show. Placed on an exposed brick wall in a prime position in the gallery, it’s a beautifully rendered mountainscape in blues. “As with his other, smaller landscapes, there’s a calming, ethereal quality to them,” White suggests, “but it’s broken by the subtle placement of a jet with slipstream in the sky, for example, or a rocket blasting off in the background.” Curiously, in spite of being a painting, with that contrast to the peaceful landscape you can almost hear that jet in the distance.
The final artist – and my personal favourite – is Laith McGregor. “Laith is a young man with an extraordinary ability; he’s going to go far.” White says, “What am I saying, he already has. His works are snapped up by institutions and collectors all over Australia already.” Largely portraits, his subjects are, how shall I say, somewhat of an acquired taste – he seems to be a fan of beards – what makes them intriguing is that he’s brought drawing back into play. And his chosen medium is Biro. “The thing I like about them,” White says, “is the negative space. You have this exquisitely rendered drawing – note the detail around the eyes – in biro, naturally, but he’s left spaces on the page that actually feel like they’re filled.”
The collection of this five, with its diversity as well as evident skill, is testament to White’s sense of judgment as much as the artists’ ability. As with Australia Now, 5 By 5 goes way beyond breaking with the conventions and stereo-types of what Brits (and Americans, Europeans, arguably everyone who’s not antipodean) consider ‘Australian’ art. It’s an intriguing, captivating show. I’ve stayed longer than I should have done, I need to get back to the office…but I think I’ll just do one more lap of the gallery. And I wonder, that Nona print would look terrific on Jonesy’s wall.
5 By 5 at The Menier Gallery, 51-53 Southwark Street, Southwark, London SE1 1RU. Tel: 020 7407 3222. Website: www.meniergallery.co.uk. Exhibition runs until 5th June. For more information about COMODAA, please visit www.comodaa.com.